Friday, 5 June 2009

Abstract or not?

I have been reading a lot of definitions of abstract photography to try to clarify my own thinking. It seems to me that macro images are often described as being abstract when they are just close-ups or detail. Here are some defininitons of abstract I have culled from many sources ;-
  • Abstract (adjective) existing in the mind only. Having no reference to material objects of specific examples. Not concrete.
  • Abstract (noun) essence of the whole
  • Abstract (verb) to take away. To remove from reality.
Perhaps the definition is less easy to apply to photography than other art forms. We know when a painting is non-representative and may be a total result of the artist's imagination, but in photography, the viewer knows that the photographer started with an object or a view of the natural world which has been abstracted. Very often the object is still recognizable but the subject has become secondary to other considerations such as shape, form, colour.
Before taking the Open College of Arts photography course these questions would not have mattered to me, but now I want to develop a language to talk about my photography.

Here are two of my photographs which illustrate what I have been talking about.
Abstract or macro?


glasshouse 5
Ice and Fire

Beads is a macro shot taken infront of blue and red cellophane taped on a window.

Ice and Fire is snow on a greenhouse roof, shot into the morning sun.


Susan D said...

As you say it's difficult to say whether they can be considered macro or abstract but I definitely think 'Ice and Fire' ticks all the boxes for an abstract. I didn't know what it was until I read the description.

BTW thanks for leaving a comment on my blog. It is so nice when someone takes the time to leave some feedback.

Jill said...

Likewise, it's good to know you are not just posting into the ether.

Duncan Astbury said...

I really like the beads. I think the context may be a factor in deciding abstract v macro. Given the same magnification, if this shot had the beads around someone's neck then I would think macro but the coloured background takes it out of a regular context and makes it more of an abstract.

Jill said...

Gilly left this comment on my flickr mail as she couldn't log on here.
"Ooooh, this is a tricky one. Looking at your three definitions, I don't think any of them work to clearly define what 'abstract' is.

Since photography by definition has to refer to material objects and can't be all in the mind, then this isn't really a useful way of looking at it.

And, in a sense, all photography is abstracted if we use one of your other definitions: taken away from reality. Even the most representative of photos is two-dimensional, which is at least one step away from a 3-D reality. Of course, there is a continuum operating here - your 'ice and fire' image (which, incidentally, I think is wonderful) is quite far towards one end; the beads are slightly further up simply because it's easier to understand at a glance what they are, and a straight landscape image or street shot is as close as we're likely to get to realism. I think this definition also opens up all sorts of very awkward questions about what reality is!

The remaining definition, the essence of the whole,could also be applied to a wide range of subject matter and various ways of portraying it. In a way, isn't that what all of us are trying to do - distill the essence of our subject matter? We do this by selecting what goes within the picture frame and what we leave out; what's in focus and what isn't. I'm not sure this one helps much either.

How about an abstract image meaning one in which the subject matter can't be immediately identified? I'm sure there's lots wrong with this as well, but it seems a better starting point. Then you could place things on a continuum, with totally unidentifiable images at one end, moving towards easily identifiable ones at the other.

It's an interesting question and, like all the best questions, probably one that can never be satisfactorily answered.

Selina Wallace said...

hmm, interesting discussion here... I think both your images are abstract, but then I think that's because of my view of the world, I like seeing the abstract in things, that's one of the aspects of photography I really love, but it is interesting to consider the actual definition of abstract. I'm afraid at this point I don't have much to add, but I'll have a think about it and maybe come back in a while with my thoughts. I really like both of these photos though! S